The eighteenth book in Patrick O’Brian’s great naval series more than maintains the standards he has set himself. There is no falling-off, no self-indulgence. That is all O’Brian fans need to know; they need have no fears. O’Brian’s energy, humour and skill continue unabated; if anything, his canvas is wider, more ambitious, more complex than ever.
There is no dying fall. We find all the principal characters assembled ashore, at Jack Aubrey’s ancient inherited estate in Devon. He, needless to say, is enmeshed in litigation and trouble, as he always is on land. He has no money and a frigid wife. His neighbour wants to enclose a parish common; Jack, a true old Tory, wants to stop such modern nonsense, regardless of the fact that this brings him into conflict with the admiral commanding the Brest blockade, where Jack should be but isn’t. Stephen Maturin and his far from frigid wife, Diana, are there too; so are various children (O’Brian pretends not to like children but writes about them – at least when they are not babies – with wonderful sympathy), horses, dogs, prizefighters, gamekeepers and publicans. A whole village comes to life to prove that although Jack Aubrey may be